When I think of the Christmases of my youth there are few presents I can remember receiving. A gallon of pickles when I was about 10 or 11, because I really loved pickles. A remote controlled airplane that I crashed and destroyed on the playground of my elementary school on its first flight. An electric typewriter, when I was 15 or 16, which I learned to type on while listening to a cassette tape of Sting singing “We Work the Black Seam Together”. To this day, if I’m really in the groove, I type to the tempo of that song.
What I remember most about Christmas is candles. We would always go to the midnight service at our small Methodist church in Phoenix. It was sometimes just my father and I in the pews because mom was always with the choir and my brother was often sitting in the first row by himself, struggling to stay awake in his acolyte robes. Dad and I would sit a few rows back and I would try to stay awake by fidgeting for 45 minutes with a small unlit candle poking up through a piece of round paper, wishing the service to hurry along to the good part.
In my memory it was as magical as a Hogwarts banquet when it finally happened. The lights in the sanctuary were dimmed and the minister would light his small candle from the larger candle burning by the altar. He would share his flame with those in the front rows, and, in a very quiet, deliberate way the light was shared down each row. When I was very young it seemed as if the candles held in the hands of people much taller than I were floating above me. It was a big deal the year I was finally old enough to be trusted with my own candle.
After the candles were all lit, the pastor, followed by the choir, would move silently down the center aisle and out into the courtyard. I would always strain to catch a glimpse of my mother as she went by in her choir robes, but I needn’t have worried because she would always catch my eye with a wink and a smile.
After they had passed the congregation would quietly follow, the front rows falling in behind the choir and the rows behind taking their turn as the procession moved past. My father and I would take our turn, stepping into the aisle, careful with our candles so as to not burn another or to move too fast, which would make the hot wax spill off the top and run down over the paper holder onto our fingers.
We would gather in the courtyard, now softly glowing in the light of the luminarias somebody had lit during the service. As we stood under the olive trees that lined the sidewalks my mother and brother would join my father and me and then, with the soft strum of a single guitar, we would sing Silent Night. I didn’t so much hear the words as I felt them vibrating through my cheek, pressed up against my father’s thigh as I tried to stay awake, lulled by the soft singing and the calm flames.
When we finished singing the pastor would send us on our way to sleep in Heavenly Peace. My brother and I would blow out our small candles, dipping into the wax to make small, warm caps for our fingertips. While we waited for mom to put away her choir robe we would move around the dark courtyard and extinguish the luminarias, careful to do so gently and not set the paper bags alight.
The Christmas Days of my youth, similarly, are largely a blur. Presents, food, joy of having older brothers visit and apprehension that they’d find it fun to push us into the cold swimming pool in the back yard. More food, visiting uncles and aunts and cousins, pie, usually a card game or two.
What I mostly recall is the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, after all the obligations and expectations and traditions were over and I could spend time with my friends again. In that week after Christmas we would play, of course, but what I remember most is the long walks or bike rides we would take, exploring the alleys and canals in our neighborhood, talking about everything that had happened in school or Scouts and what the coming semester would be like.
I still enjoy the week between – it’s a time of reflection, a time to contemplate all the experiences and lessons of the past year, and it’s a time of resolution, a time to decide what to let go and what to build upon.
What did I learn this past year? The value of peace.
It came in a roundabout way, as important lessons seem to do. A group of co-workers and I spent a few minutes each day last January exploring meditation and learned the value of calming our thoughts and hearts before diving into our days. In the spring I became the Assistant Pack Leader of my sons’ Cub Scout Pack and I learned that by merely standing still at the front of a room, right hand held out with two fingers making a peace sign, I could silence a room of raucous boys. I learned that in the quiet of an early morning, before the others in the house awoke, I could hear a voice that I could put down in words and share with others. Over the summer we scrambled to launch a large new YMCA and I learned that when leading a team staying calm and deliberate was far more productive than showing anxiety. This fall I learned that peace comes not from withdrawing but from pushing out of my comfort zone, that by meeting someone from a population I was unfamiliar with that they could become just a name and a person and not a scary “them”.
One of the most cherished pieces of wisdom I recall my father giving me is to “act, not react”. As I look towards next year, especially as an election year and as I step into the role of Pack Leader, this is my resolve: to be aware of the wrecking balls of hate, fear and anger and to stand and make decisions in peace, sharing what flame I may find, lighting luminarias to mark the path for my sons, the Scouts, and our community so that we can truly make this a better world.
Peace be with you, my friends.